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The Boston Phoenix Into the Night

From the always disquieting James Purdy, a deceptively simple story of a woman in search of her daughter's secret past.

By Michael Bronski

OCTOBER 26, 1998: 

GERTRUDE OF STONY ISLAND AVENUE, by James Purdy. William Morrow and Company, 182 pages, $19.95.

At first glance, the most startling thing about Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue is the list of people whose blurbs grace the back of the jacket: Gore Vidal, Dame Edith Sitwell, Marianne Moore, Dorothy Parker, Katherine Anne Porter. It is a little unsettling, and not just because, except for Vidal, these people are long dead: more than that, it reminds us how fleeting literary reputations can be. When the Ohio-born Purdy published his first work, in 1956, he reaped praise from the literary establishment. Since then, he has published 46 volumes -- novels, poetry, stories, and plays -- but he has retreated from the limelight. His last novel, Out with the Stars, could not find a US publisher and was released only in a British edition. Yet as the stunning Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue proves, it is not Purdy who has declined.

Purdy is one of those writers whose great works are often called "minor masterpieces." This is something that condescending critics usually say about books that make people deeply uncomfortable, yet are too good to ignore. There is a reason why Carson McCullers -- a writer with whom Purdy shares a sublime sense of the gothic -- is most famous for the lovely but sentimental The Member of the Wedding, while Reflections in a Golden Eye, with its devastating view of sexual repression and redemption, is mentioned in passing, if at all. Critics praised Purdy's early novels, but even then they noted the author's apparent predisposition to unusual sexual arrangements and his tendency to "pervert" traditional Christian symbolism. By the time the violent and blatantly homoerotic Eustace Chisholm and the Works appeared, they were far less charitable. With the 1978 publication of his most ambitious work, the harrowing Narrow Rooms, Purdy left the critics in the dust, and they left him in disgust.

Although gay male characters figure in some of Purdy's fiction, one of his central strengths has been the portrayal of older, crisis-ridden women looking for deliverance in a world that has imprisoned them with civility. In this he fits into an American gay sensibility pioneered by Tennessee Williams and William Inge, but Purdy rejects both the gorgeous poetry of the former and the easy sentimentality of the latter. Instead, he offers tightly constructed, highly artificial prose that worms its way into our consciousness and refuses to offer solutions or solace.

Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue, which was first published last year in England, features themes and character types that appeared in The Nephew (1960) and On Glory's Course (1980). Carrie Kinsella, an upper-middle-class Chicago matron of advancing years and fearful expectations, sets out to discover the secret life of her daughter Gertrude, a noted painter and bohemian who has died after what was, by her parents' standards, a life of sexual extravagance. The plot is simple, but Purdy's ability to distill the humor and horror of everyday life consistently startles and disturbs. Carrie's conversations with her repressive, dying-by-moments husband, for instance, quiver with a subdued hilarity that highlights her growing sense of rage and impending madness:

"I have been thinking, Carrie," he began.

I encouraged him with a smile to go on.

"At my time of life," Daddy began hesitantly, "there seems to be left only diversion, what they call killing time. The diversions which fall to my lot are not anything I precisely am interested in, but at the time I think what else is there? When we are young we are so alive we never think of diversion. Everything we do is bubbling over within us. We glide with life. We are not waiting for life, or planning for some distant future. We are life."

He gave me a questioning troubled look.

"Now don't start contradicting, Carrie, or I will send you out of the room."

Purdy is unafraid to test the extent to which we will accept his deliberate dislocation of language from feeling. Though at times he seems almost to ridicule his characters, his technique always reflects a deeper respect for their lives.

As Carrie reads Gertrude's journal and visits the seedy haunts her daughter once frequented, her adventures in pursuit of the "truth" career between farce and tragedy. She's an Alice stepping through a postmodern psychoanalytic looking glass -- or, as one character says, a modern-day Demeter descending to the underworld. With the help of her much-divorced sister-in-law and several of Gertrude's admirers, Carrie eventually finds what she is looking for: a way to understand her daughter's death, and a source of meaning in her own empty life. But the book's real power resides in Purdy's insistence that language never be taken at face value. He repeatedly seduces us with simplicity of diction and emotion, only to jolt us into hyperawareness of how complicated and terrifying life really is. Though Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue may look like an uncomplicated modern fable of personal growth, it is much more: it explores how language and consciousness, expression and experience clash and reconfigure in unexpected ways. Entering Purdy's disorienting world reminds us that art -- real art -- can distress, surprise, and disconcert even as it illuminates.

Michael Bronski's book The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom has just been published by St. Martin's.

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